By Sian Powell published on 12/4/2018

A top-secret security operation to send spent radioactive fuel rods from Australia’s nuclear reactor to France for reprocessing is planned for the coming months.

Potentially involving hundreds of state and federal police, the details of the transport operation will remain confidential until after the shipment arrives at La Hague, in northwest France.

Unused uranium and plutonium will then be removed from the fuel rods, and the residual waste eventually returned to Australia for storage. About 500kg of unused low-enriched uranium and 4.5kg of unused plutonium will be recovered from the rods. Experts estimate it would be enough to power about 110,000 homes for a year.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation at Lucas Heights in Sydney’s south has confirmed the shipment will be trucked to a port for transport to La Hague midway through this year.

The route, the port, the time and the ship, as well as the numbers of ­security personnel, will remain confidential until after the mission is completed.

The last shipment of spent rods was sent to the US in 2009, and both Port Kembla and Port Botany have been used as shipment ports in the past.

When reprocessed nuclear waste was returned to Australia in 2015 for storage at Lucas Heights, more than 500 police were ­deployed to guard the shipment, and it is expected at least that number will guard the radioactive cargo destined for France.

The radioactive spent fuel rods will be packed into an undisclosed number of ­immensely tough lead and stainless steel transport casks for the journey to France.

“These casks are purpose-­engineered to safely transport this type of material without risk to people or the environment,” said the manager of the multipurpose OPAL Reactor at Lucas Heights, Dave Vittorio. “Even a jet plane strike could not penetrate them.”

The total cost of the project is $45 million, including the contract with France, equipment, staff costs, and incidentals.

A reprocessing facility in Australia would not be economic ­because Australia produces very small volumes of spent fuel, an ANSTO spokesman said. “France has both the largest reprocessing facility in the world, and also has purpose-built infrastructure that is suitable for reprocessing research reactor fuel such as ours.”

Australia, like other nations, pays to use the La Hague facility’s infrastructure and expertise. The shipment will be the 10th export of spent nuclear fuel ­assemblies used in the OPAL ­reactor’s first 10 years of operation. The reactor, which uses only low-enriched uranium fuel, has been used in the fields of nuclear medicine and electronics, including:

  • The production of about 5.5 million nuclear medicine doses for Australian patients since 2007, used for diagnosis and treatment of heart, lung, and skeletal conditional and cancers;
  • The production of millions of additional doses of nuclear medicine for patients overseas, predominantly in the US and throughout Asia;
  • The development of Lutetium-177, now being used in clinical trials for neuroendocrine tumours, and prostate cancer; and
  • The irradiation of more than 45 tonnes of silicon each year, the raw material that enables high-powered electronic devices such as solar farms, hybrid cars and wind farm technology.

Around the world, at least 25,000 shipments of spent fuel have been transported since 1971 without an incident involving significant radiological consequences for people or the environment.

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